RICHMOND, VA—The Virginia House Democratic Caucus eagerly anticipate their new laws making voting more accessible and equitable in the Commonwealth, many of which go into effect on July 1, 2020. These pieces of legislation include creating a permanent absentee vote-by-mail program, removing the excuse requirement for absentee voting, enacting same-day registration, establishing Election Day as a state holiday, expanding the voting ID law to include certain non-photo IDs, making voter registration applications available at high schools and colleges, authorizing automatic voter registration, and providing voting materials in multiple languages for non English-speaking citizens.
“There is nothing more fundamental to the country than the right of citizens to choose their leaders. This session, we made historic progress in expanding the right to vote in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Onerous and restrictive voting laws have a disproportionately harmful effect on African Americans and people of color,” said Virginia Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn. “I am so proud we made important strides toward making Virginia more equitable by, among other measures, removing the requirement that a Virginian must present photo identification to vote, legalizing 45 days of no-excuse absentee voting, and finally replacing the ‘Lee-Jackson Day’ state holiday with one that truly represents who we are as Virginians and Americans, Election Day.”
In 2018, Virginia was named the second hardest state to vote in by a Northern Illinois University study, which “analyzed the impact of 33 different variables dealing with registration and voting laws” then ranked states based on “the time and effort it took to vote in each presidential election year from 1996 through 2016.” House Democrats dismantled many of these problems this year.
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board condemned the Commonwealth’s ballot access limitations in a January 29, 2020 editorial, stating that past General Assembly majorities “opted to suppress turnout by minorities, low-income residents and younger voters” to avoid “virtually nonexistent voter fraud” which “in the state is about as common as a unicorn with a ukulele.” The editorial also criticized Virginia’s voter photo-ID law, noting the “plain fact that the law’s real-world effect is to disproportionately impede ballot access for black voters, who are more likely to lack photo IDs required for in-person voting.”
“In the 2020 legislative session, House Democrats overturned some of the darkest chapters of the Commonwealth’s history, including remnants of painful times when segments of our citizenry were blocked from voting,” said House Democratic Majority Leader Charniele Herring, who carried HB 1 allowing Virginia voters to request an absentee ballot without requiring an excuse. “Although the days of Jim Crow are over, many of our current voting laws still disproportionately hurt the populations who had to fight for recognition of their right to vote—people of color, women, young adults, and the less financially secure. I am inspired by the determination and creativity shown by our Caucus to address this systemic imbalance.”
During the 2019 elections, House Democrats campaigned for wider voting access as a way to defend the inalienable worth of every Virginian, especially those who have been continually overlooked. To better the lives of all Virginians, our candidates pledged to complete the ratification process for the Equal Rights Amendment, implement gun-violence-prevention measures, create stronger legal protections against discrimination, and remove the criminal penalty for simple marijuana possession. A blue wave swept Virginia last November, with 2.9 million Virginia voters giving Democrats the majority of the General Assembly for the first time in more than 20 years. As a result, the 2020 legislative session brought historic change to the Commonwealth, showing the power voters have at the ballot box.
“Restrictions at the polls that burden voters due to baseless fear-mongering make it unnecessarily difficult to vote. Legislators should help their constituents access the polls, not restrict them,” said House Democratic Caucus Chair Rip Sullivan, the patron of HB 213 which allows students to use their out-of-state college ID cards as voting identification. “HB 213, along with several other House bills expanding voting rights, clears a more accessible path for eligible voters to shape the future of their communities, the Commonwealth, and the country.”
Here is a summary of the House Democrats’ voting rights bills enacted during the 2020 legislative session; new laws become effective on July 1 unless otherwise noted below:
- HB 1 – Under current law, Virginia voters are required to provide one of several allowed excuses to vote prior to election day. HB 1 allows Virginia voters to request and vote with an absentee ballot, by mail or in person, without having to specify a reason. The bill was carried by House Democratic Majority Leader Charniele Herring.
- HB 19 broadens the types of identification a voter can use to include certain items that do not show a photo of the voter. The bill makes it a felony to falsely sign an affirmation of one’s identity in order to vote. Delegate Joe Lindsey carried HB 19.
- HB 108 establishes Election Day as a state holiday and removes Lee-Jackson Day from the list of state holidays. This measure aims to increase voting accessibility to a large segment of voters in the Commonwealth. Delegate Joe Lindsey also served as the patron of the bill.
- HB 201 will implement same-day registration, allowing voters to register to vote on Election Day. The bill aims to help voters who move more frequently—younger voters, low-income voters, and people of color— and those who do not have reliable transportation, allowing a person to register and vote in just one trip. Virginia law currently sets a registration deadline 21 days before an election. Delegate Hala Ayala introduced the bill. The implementation of this bill is delayed until October 1, 2022.
- HB 207 will provide a special application for any voter to receive an absentee ballot in all elections that they are eligible to vote in. This will allow voters to permanently “vote by mail” without having to fill out separate absentee ballot requests several times a year to vote by mail in various elections. As in the case of HB 1, this measure also removes the requirement that the voter provide a reason for voting absentee. Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg patroned HB 207. The bill becomes effective on July 1, 2021.
- HB 213 extends the ability for students to use their school photo-ID cards from any college or university within the United States or U.S. territories as identification for voting in Virginia. Currently, only in-state college ID cards are accepted. The bill was sponsored by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rip Sullivan.
- HB 232 requires the Virginia Department of Elections to make voter registration forms available at public and private colleges and universities, as well as educational nonprofit organizations. Delegate Rodney Willett patroned HB 232.
- HB 235 clarifies and improves the process by which the Department of Motor Vehicles offers U.S. citizens age 17 or older the opportunity to automatically register to vote when acquiring or updating a Virginia driver’s license or identification card. The process, which includes an opt-out provision, is intended to ensure that persons eligible to vote are more easily able to register. Delegate Joshua Cole carried this bill.
- HB 238 authorizes counting any absentee ballot that arrives at the registrar’s office by noon on the third day after the election, which is postmarked on or before the date of the election. HB 238 was sponsored by Delegate Mark Sickles.
- HB 239 adjusts the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot by mail to eleven days before the election, including applications from members of the military and citizens living abroad, and adds the same adjustment for emergency applications and absentee ballots for voters who become hospitalized or incapacitated. Delegate Sickles also carried this bill.
- HB 241 removes the requirement for a person seeking protected voter status to file a complaint with a magistrate or law enforcement in cases where the applicant is fearful of their safety or has been stalked. The requirement for a signed written statement from the applicant remains in place. Del. Sickles introduced HB 241.
- HB 242 allows voters to apply for an absentee ballot late if an emergency caused them to miss the absentee application deadline or will leave them unable to vote on election day. Delegate Sickles served as the patron for this bill as well.
- HB 872 adds an exception to ensure that persons confined due to an upcoming trial or due to a misdemeanor conviction, who would otherwise be required to vote in person due to registering to vote via mail, are able to vote via absentee ballot. Delegate Jeffrey Bourne introduced this legislation.
- HB 1210 requires the Department of Elections and local registrars to provide voting and election materials in languages other than English, to aid immigrant and Native American citizens who do not speak English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process. The additional languages required will be determined by Census data, percentage and number of language minority communities in the locality, and consideration of Native American reservations nearby. Delegate Kathy Tran served as the patron for HB 1210, which goes into effect on September 1, 2021.
- HB 1491 requires public high schools to provide voting age students with access to voter registration information and applications, or access to Virginia’s online voter registration using a school-owned device, during school hours. This legislation was patroned by Delegate Nancy Guy.